When I was in college, I – like most theater nerds – was obsessed with the musical Rent. A college friend of mine and I even traveled to New York City one icy spring break to see Rent on Broadway. It was magical. We had memorized every line of every song. I knew the play backwards, forwards, and every which way in between.
The iconic hit from Rent is a song called “Seasons of Love”, which the whole casts sings in answer to the question, “How does one measure a year?”
The past 12 months have changed every part of my world. This coming Sunday will mark one year to the day that I walked into the Female Detention Center at the Orange County Jail on 33rd Street in Orlando, Florida. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into, who I would meet, or how it would go. When I walked in for the first time, I was terrified. Not because of where I was or who was there, but because I had NO IDEA what I was doing. I had been brought on by Summit Church to fill a volunteer role as the women’s worship service leader. I have never worked in ministry. I have never worked with or for a church. I have never lead a church service and I had never been inside a jail. I had some tech instructions, a DVD with a sermon on it, a Bible, and a whole lot of anxiety.
Over the course of the last year, I have spend my Sundays, some Wednesdays, and a few Mondays with some of the bravest women I have ever met. From the outside looking in, these women may be drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes, accomplices, murderers, probation violators, abusers, pimps, and unwed mothers.
To me, these women are friends and sisters in Christ. They are mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and grandmothers. I know their stories, their children’s names, their hopes, and their fears.
It didn’t start that way, though. It started with my fear of inadequacy and their fear of yet another white girl coming into the jail to try to change their hearts. Even though I had all the best intentions, they had no way of knowing if I would come back. If I would keep my promises. If I would just tell them everything that was wrong with them and hope for better.
It’s difficult to put into words all that I am feeling this week as I prepare to celebrate our first year together. I am not quite sure how to craft a sermon full of celebration and hope mixed with sober reality and grief over time and lives lost.
There is a delicate balance to working in the jail – a balance between injecting hope while recognizing the pain of reality. But I guess that is something we all have to face, if we are honest. The setting may look different. You and I have roofs and comfy beds and jobs and cars and gas in the tank. Yet, horrific things happen all of the time. Comfort numbs the pain of reality, and that scares me. I am all too quick to forget that, until I walk into a room full of women who are wearing the same outfit they were wearing days ago, sleeping on metal cots with no mattress, and shedding profound tears over the thought of spending Thanksgiving and Christmas alone, and apart from their children and families.
One year later, I am still not sure what I am doing. Women come and women go, and some familiar faces return for the same crimes they have committed before. My prayer for these women is freedom – freedom from betrayal, pain, darkness, addiction, trafficking, and self-sabotaging patterns. I can’t give them these things. In truth, I have nothing much to give other than hugs.
I am just thankful for the chance to spend precious time with women who teach me so much about life, love, faith, courage, and the heart. Here’s to another year…measured in love.